Last weekend was the start of the Iditarod; even as I write this, dozens of intrepid mushers and their dogs are racing their way across the Alaskan interior to Nome. Also as I write this, dozens of intrepid tourists are trying to figure out what else to do during their Iditarod vacation before they fly back to Ohio or New Jersey, now that the dog teams and the fanfare have moved beyond Anchorage city limits.
At least a few of the tourists have wandered down the Seward Highway to the aquarium. It's a little amazing to me that we get out-of-state tourists visiting at this time of year – especially when they show up at the ticketing counter without an actual Alaskan accompanying them. People visit relatives up here at all times of the year (or so I’ve been told – after four seasons of intermittently living here, my own family has yet to make the trip) – but to come to Alaska for no other reason than it’s the middle of winter seems like a strange idea.
Also, if anyone did come up from Florida or Arizona to experience winter, they might be in for some disappointment. It is currently 41 degrees in Seward; the ice is melting and the entire town is covered alternately with dirty ice, road gravel, or dead grass. There is hardly any snow in town anymore, and out of town it’s starting to look patchy as well. It would be nicer if the warming temperatures were actually melting the ice, but as far as I can tell, that isn’t happening. The ice is merely taking the opportunity to reposition itself, flowing downhill during the day and reverting to a sheet of glass at around 7pm.
I got chatting with one couple at the aquarium, had flown in from Las Vegas for the Iditarod, and had decided to drive down to Seward for the day. Now, at around 4pm, they were facing the slightly more alarming (to them) prospect of driving back to Anchorage, a three-hour trip in good weather. Back in Nevada, I don’t think they realized that renting a car in March would mean that winter driving would necessarily become part of their Alaskan vacation.
Mr. Vegas started off the conversation by nervously asking where in town he could fill up the car - he’d apparently been shocked that after leaving Girdwood, he hadn’t passed any gas stations for the next ninety miles. He also asked if anyone was going to be grading the road – which seemed an odd question, considering that it hasn’t snowed here in over two weeks. He didn’t like that Alaska doesn’t salt its roads; he really didn’t like that there is no cell phone coverage on the majority of the highway. (It’s the same ninety miles that don’t have any gas stations.) He seemed very concerned that the 127 miles of wet pavement he drove on to get down here was going to transform itself into 127 miles of luge chutes and skating rinks the moment the sun went down. And I couldn’t honestly say that that wasn’t exactly what would happen.
The highway can be intimidating to drive even in good conditions. In the summer, it is crowded with tour buses, rental cars, and RVs that have more square footage than my one-bedroom apartment. The tour buses don’t dawdle – they are on a timetable – but many of the other cars seem content to go thirty-five miles an hour for the entire 127 miles of highway. It is actually a law here that if more than five cars are lined up behind yours, you must pull off the road at the next safe opportunity and let them all past. The problem is that out-of-state drivers (who make up the majority of the offenders) don’t usually know about this. Perhaps they should start handing out copies of the Alaska Highway Code along with the rental car agreements. In the winter, they can switch to handing out snow shovels, and printouts of the Alaska 511 report.
In the winter, the highway is deserted, but you instead have to deal with the dark, and the snow. It doesn’t help that the yellow lines were last repainted sometime in the Clinton years, although once the road is covered in snow, this becomes a moot point. At that point, a driver determines her position in the lane by counting wheel ruts.
The Seward highway has two lanes for most of its length, but both the north and south-bound lanes will frequently begat various offshoots, in the form of turning lanes, passing lanes, slow-vehicle lanes, turnouts, parking areas, and mistakes by the snow plows. When there are only four wheel ruts to choose from, knowing which ruts constitute your lane is fairly straightforward. But when the wheel ruts jump to six or eight (or five, or seven), it gets tricky. At that point, the best thing to do is to hug the right-hand snow berm - and earnestly hope the oncoming cars are doing the same thing.